If I were a performer, I wouldn’t read my reviews. All that crippling self-doubt and second-guessing? The conflicting, exaggerated demands of a short-sighted audience who just started thinking about my show a few hours ago, while I’ve been grappling with it for months? There’s a reason why comments section have a disable button.
And yet, constant audience review is precisely the motivating force behind the New York Neo-Futurists’ latest show, The Great American Drama, playing through February 5th at A.R.T. Theaters. Creator Connor Sampson and performers Nicole Hill, Katy-May Hudson, and Dan McCoy gathered nearly 500 surveys that gauged theatregoers’ ideal show. The survey asks participants to rank theatrical elements in order of importance, to state what would they pay to see, suggestions for making money as artists, and other questions to help make the best show possible. The performers try to satisfy as many of the audience’s demands as possible in 90 minutes (the timing’s definitely done right), attempting to create something that is crowd-pleasing in the purest sense of the word. At the end of the night, Sampson asks the audience and his co-stars whether the performance was a success. Audience members text a rating to an online poll, which gets projected on stage and gives the show a grade.
Last winter, Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times saga took the New York theatre world by storm at the Public’s Under the Radar Festival. (Check out our review here.) Now they’re back with two more installments that ran this weekend at the French Institute Alliance Française.
Life and Times is based on a series of telephone conversations with company member Kristin Worrall about her life… so far. The result has been a series of theatrical episodes that uses Worrall’s story word-for-word, including the “likes,” “ums,” and incomplete thoughts that make up authentic human speech. The episodes are all genre-specific, and so far Nature Theater has tackled music, singing, dance, and Agatha Christie-esque mysteries as framing devices. Episodes 4.5 & 5 continue to push the theatre-making envelope. Episode 4.5 is a short animated film, with super titles of the dialogue on the screen. Said dialogue is actually sung, which is a welcome element from previous episodes. Episode 5 takes the form of an illuminated medieval-style manuscript.
While visual art may be the obvious theme of 4.5 & 5, the evening is still strongly theatrical. Before Episode 4.5, the audience is given manilla envelopes with instructions not to open them. At the start of Episode 5, a man dressed in a tuxedo with a blue cummerbund instructs the audience to open the envelope, which contains a flashlight, a book, and earplugs. While the man plays the keyboard set to sound like an organ (thus the earplug option), the audience has forty-four minutes and twenty-eight seconds to read the book. Reading a book in itself doesn’t seem theatrical; reading the same book in the cover of darkness in a theatre filled with people doing the same thing does. It feels as if we were all voyeurs, reading the narrator’s diary with a flashlight under the covers. This is no mistake, as we learn the narrator’s first diary, like the book in our hands, has a blue cover. The voyeurism is only intensified by the illustrations, Kama Sutra-stylings with likenesses of Nature Theater founders Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska in a variety of sexual positions. As Copper writes in the book’s afterword, it becomes a “Nature Theater sex tape.”
Episode 5 also takes on a scholarly edge. It’s as if the audience takes on the role of anachronistic scholars, as the electric-powered organ music accompanies calligraphied descriptions of a remodeled teenager’s bedroom. The countdown clock on the screen seems to promise a post-show exam.
Episodes 4.5 & 5 are relatively shorter than previous episodes, but the multimedia creation is a satisfying installment that excites, surprises, and takes us to the end of the narrator’s junior year of high school.